Messages Matter

As an alumna of a highly selective college, I was recently invited to attend an admitted-students’ reception in an exclusive Bay Area neighborhood. Most of my time was spent talking to the parents of the recent admits and assuring them that I was as impressive as they expected me to be. Growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, attending a private high school, and being raised in the upwardly-mobile middle class, I absorbed a narrow notion of what success looks like and how to achieve it. However, of all the messages I received from adults, the ones that stabilized and helped me most were honest and specific ones, and statements that reinforced unconditional love.

My parents were both the first in their respective families to be college educated; like most kids in the new “meritocratic elite,” I absorbed a lot of the pressure to make up for what my mom considered missed opportunities from her childhood. I felt this keenly when I was handed an oboe in third grade to play. When you are a “gifted youth,” life in adolescence feels like a walk along a tightrope. With so much potential and so many opportunities, you are raised aloft. However, like in physics, the higher the potential energy, the harder the potential impact of a fall. When teenagers think that life is a linear path and they can “fall off” and become failures at any moment, it can be crippling and anxiety-producing.

My personal experience of being tested and assessed in every stage of life to get into school (starting in third grade) definitely fed into the instinct to collect discrete, empirical, external achievements. My friends and I jokingly call this “gold star collecting.” Once you start achieving “gold stars,” it’s hard to stop and question why, especially if you’re good at it. If you are used to the external validation, how does one switch to having control, agency, and introspection yourself? I’m not saying that every student who strives to do well in school and follow conventional norms is somehow lacking; there is simply a lot of social and educational infrastructure around striving and achieving and less around thoughtfulness and acknowledgement of limitations.

I believe that what we say and how we say it matters, and that we need to provide more stories of ways that students can succeed that aren’t within the conventional norm. When parents, school staff, and peers disparage people they see as “floundering” or “impractical,” students see that and can easily internalize that as a beacon of failure.

Many people acknowledge that success isn’t linear, but it may be helpful in high school to actually hear some examples. Telling narratives to students of how adults switch career paths, experience self-doubt and struggle with uncertainty could help diffuse absolutist and restrictive thinking around success. High school students don’t usually have too much exposure into the vulnerability and struggles of adults, and stories like these could help highlight that perceived shortcomings or moments of doubt are survivable and human.

Having honest and specific conversations around vulnerability and deeper discussions around success contributes to a sense of security and unconditional love. Asking questions that Challenge Success suggests parents and mentors ask teens, like “What was the best part of your day?” instead of “How did you do on your test?” also breaks through the veneer of an overachieving kid. Believe me, it’s easier for lots of these students to rattle off their resume in ways meant to placate adults than it is to delve deeply into why they are doing things or how they feel about them.

Ultimately, vulnerability, unconditional love, and relationship-building are key to teenagers’ emotional health in a high-pressure environment. At one of my own career transitions, my former boss, who went down a winding path (which included work in sports journalism and tech, interspersed by travel and meandering), provided true mentorship by telling me about his own journey and struggles. He reminded me that I’m intrinsically valuable, regardless of my achievements or “potential.”

Alicia Mergenthaler holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics and will soon begin a graduate program in data sciences. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and volunteered with Challenge Success during the Spring of 2018. As part of her volunteer service, Alicia researched the role social and behavioral economics can play for non-profits interested in shifting cultural norms and deep-seeded narratives for positive change.